Agar is a natural jelly from seaweed. Although most seaweeds have it, some varieties produce more and better quality gel.
HOW WAS AGAR FIRST DISCOVERED?
Agar was discovered accidentally. The legend goes that a Japanese emperor and his court became lost in the mountains during a storm. They came upon a small guest house where they were served a jelly dish with their dinner. Some was left and froze, thawed and drained overnight to produce a cracked substance of low density. The innkeeper later found that the substance could be remade into jelly by boiling it up with more water.
So historically, the gel was first invented in Japan around 1658. Its industrialization as a dry and stable seaweed extract started at the beginning of the 18th century in Japan, where it has since been called ‘kanten‘.
Until 1940 most of the world’s supply of Agar came from Japan. When Japan entered the Second World War, its supply to allied countries was threatened. Many nations started looking into ways to produce their own, whether they had seaweed on their shores or had to buy from other countries.
In 1941, New Zealand scientists established that two native species of red seaweed yielded commercial quantities of agar gel, and the government paid for their collection. The new industry developed in New Zealand in 1941 to provide for our microbiology needs, and also as a jelly for preservation of canned meat sent to soldiers overseas. Most of the necessary harvesting of seaweed was done by East Coast Māori.
The word "agar-agar" is of Malayan origin, but "Agar" is the most commonly accepted term is simply 'Agar". This gel and other vegetable gums are now used commonly in a variety of industries. There has been some controversy over the health impact of some chemically produced gums, but the way we produce Agar here, preserves all its virtues.
In the West, this vegan substitute to gelatine has initially appealed to people who are vegetarian, vegan or followers of the macrobiotic diet. Because it is more widely available and gained popularity for its therapeutic benefits, more people use it and its culinary versatility have become better understood.
WHAT YOU NEED TO CONSIDER
Agar properties vary from producer to producer as they have access to different types of seaweeds, growing in different environments, or may use different extraction techniques. For that reason, the various end products will have varying characteristics. NZ produces the best Agar in the world. It is very high in quality and although it is expensive to buy, value for money is excellent. It is very pure, will melt easily and less is required to achieve the result. From a culinary point of view, Agar is a positive alternative to gelatine. It has 8-10 times the gelling power of its animal counterpart. Agar is clear, odourless and tasteless and lends itself to a wide range of food applications.
New Zealand produces an excellent quality agar from a few red seaweeds collectively called ‘agar weed’ by harvesters. Today most of the seaweed is collected from south Wairarapa and then sent to Ōpōtiki, where NZ Agar is isolated from the algae (1).
(1) extract from an article from Maggy Wassilieff. 'Seaweed', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 2-Mar-09